We asked CPAC attendees what they think 'woke' means. Their answers were all over the place.

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaks on a panel about “Sacking the Woke Playbook” at CPAC on March 2, 2023.
Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaks on a panel about “Sacking the Woke Playbook” at CPAC on March 2, 2023.Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • The word "woke" has quickly shot to the forefront of Republican politics in recent years.

  • It's been used to describe a sweeping array of topics — essentially anything Republicans don't like.

  • We asked CPAC attendees what they thought the word means. Their answers revealed little consensus.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — In 2023, the word "woke" seems to be at the top of conservatives' minds.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential contender, has declared that his state is "where woke goes to die." Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana has floated the idea of an "anti-woke" caucus in the House. And a Department of Labor rule pertaining to socially-conscious investment decisions, derided by the right as "woke," has teed up what will be the first veto of Joe Biden's presidency.

But at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — a yearly confab where the Republican Party's most die-hard activists and political hangers-on hear from conservative influencers and politicians — the precise definition of the ubiquitous word remains elusive.

"That's tough. Let me think on it. Give me like two minutes to come up with something good," said Johnny McEntee, the CEO of a right-wing dating app that explicitly declares that "other dating apps have gone woke."

The word "woke" originally emerged from African American vernacular English, signifying a general awareness of systems of injustice. But in recent years, the word has been co-opted by the right, often used as a catch-all term for progressive policies, ideas, and ways of thinking.

And among the right-wing gathering's attendees, the word seemed to encompass seemingly everything that conservatives dislike about the world.

"My opinion is: they're trying to wake up what shouldn't be woken up," said Daniel Francis, 58, who said he'd traveled from his home in Southern Colorado to promote an organization that puts on rodeos for active duty service members and veterans. "They're stirring the pot in the wrong direction."

For Francis, who said he homeschools his own children, the word "woke" invokes the idea of a system of education that's stoking divisions between groups. But it's also the driving factor behind a broader set of policy concerns — and the Republican Party, in his view, isn't doing enough to combat it.

"I think the woke side is kind of keeping the border open," he said. "I mean, that's what they want."

Daniel Francis, 58, said people are “trying to wake up what shouldn't be woken up.”
Daniel Francis, 58, said people are "trying to wake up what shouldn't be woken up."Bryan Metzger/Insider

'Political corruptness'

Wokeness was also on the lips of the conference's speakers, who used the word in a variety of contexts.

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama spoke at a panel on Thursday about "Sacking the Woke Playbook," where he made sweeping claims about a left-wing agenda to uproot existing gender and sexuality norms, declaring at one point that "they want one gender."

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and one-time US ambassador to the United Nations, declared wokeness to be a "virus more dangerous than any pandemic" in her speech on Friday, ultimately closing by urging attendees to "save our country from weakness and wokeness."


McEntee, the dating app CEO, eventually settled on "political correctness" as an apt synonym, saying that President Donald Trump — McEntee's former employer — had "opened everybody's eyes" to the issue.

"You know, we shouldn't be banning words," McEntee added. Asked for clarification on which words were being banned — and by whom — he demurred, citing the fact that he was there to promote his dating app.

"Political correctness" appeared to be the most popular short-hand among attendees.

A man wears a “Stop Woke Indoctrination” sticker at CPAC 2023.
A man wears a "stop woke indoctrination" sticker at CPAC 2023.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nigel Farage, the erstwhile Brexit leader and former European Parliament member who could be seen walking around the conference on Friday, told Insider that wokeness meant "a level of political correctness that is totally extraordinary."

"If we don't agree with someone, we try and ban them or cancel them," he added.

James Winship, 68, a Virginia man dressed up as George Washington and holding a flag he said he carried on the mall on January 6, 2021, told Insider that "woke" was substituted for "political correctness" because the term sounded too much like "political corruptness."

'Everything's gotta be a hyphen-this, hyphen-that'

Others offered more expansive — and dark — definitions.

Joe Pinion, a Newsmax host who was the GOP nominee for Senate in New York in 2022, defined the "gospel of woke" as the notion that "all things in America are bad" while speaking at a panel about how conservatives might win young voters.

Jackson Stallings, a 21-year-old student attending the conference, said he saw wokeness as a combination of "this transgenderism thing," leftism, and critical race theory.

"I think it's all directly connected," he said.

Other attendees also homed in on gender and sexuality issues as being central to what defines "woke," including Susan Vandeberghe, 65, who was volunteering for CPAC after traveling to the conference from Michigan.

"Well, I don't have a problem with anybody being gay or anything like that," she said, adding that she had a gay nephew. She went on to name Pride Month, transgender athletes competing in sports, drag queens, and sex education in school systems as key examples of wokeness run amok.

"I'm not against anybody having those feelings, and it's more accepted now than ever before," she said. "But they're taking it to an extreme like no other."

Mary Phelps and Robyn Erickson, both 68, said wokeness is about division between groups.
Mary Phelps and Robyn Erickson, both 68, said wokeness is about division between groups.Bryan Metzger/Insider

Robyn Erickson and Mary Phelps, two 68-year old volunteers with the #WalkAway movement — which purports to represent former Democrats who've become Republicans — spoke generally of what they see as division and the misuse of history.

"Everything's gotta be a hyphen-this, hyphen-that," said Phelps, arguing that America should be a "melting pot" and that people are "hyper-focused on certain facets and using them to start conflict."

Erickson, a chef who noted that her company "tries to remind us of diversity, inclusion" on a weekly basis, made a culinary analogy.

"Like, when you make spaghetti sauce or chili, it's better the second day," she said. "Because it's all blended. It's come together."

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